In The Story of Russia (Metropolitan, Sept.), Figes surveys the history of Russian leaders reimagining their nation’s past to suit their present-day political agendas.
When does the creation of Russia’s national myths begin?
History-writing in Russia has always been political, bound up in myths and ideologies, many of them rooted in religious chronicles written by medieval monks, Russia’s first “historians,” whose mission was to link the dynasty of Kievan Rus to the ancient holy emperors of Byzantium and give a sacred status to the princes of the “Holy Russian land.” Many of these writings were then used by Russia’s first “professional” historians when they fed into the various accounts of Russia’s origins: Was Kievan Rus established by the Vikings or by the Slav tribes? The answer to that question has always been determined by the ruling ideology: Catherine the Great, a Westernist and by birth a German, favored the Vikings, whereas Stalin, a Russian nationalist despite his Georgian origins, suppressed any notion that the state was formed by foreigners.
Did you choose the book’s title to emphasize the power of narrative in the making of history?
Absolutely. The book is as much about the shaping of that narrative as it is about the history itself. I wanted to explain the ideas running right through Russian history, ideas that are still alive today—indeed very much a part of the Russians’ understanding of themselves.
You show that Russia’s great writers, including Gogol and Dostoyevsky, spread these myths and ideologies. Did they also redact them?
Those two certainly were instrumental in proselytizing the idea of a “Russian soul” and Russia’s “holy mission” in the world—they were Slavophiles. But other writers—Turgenev, for example—were not just redactors but debunkers of such myths, which they believed were mystical nonsense justifying serfdom and autocracy.
Is the current crisis in Ukraine an example of how the West misreads Russia’s sense of its own history?
A better understanding of the Russian point of view might have prevented some mistakes by Western leaders, certainly. The fighting in Ukraine is over history. It has its roots in Putin’s mythic reading of the past in which Ukraine does not exist, except as a “Russian” borderland. Which goes to show how dangerous history can be.
Do historical narratives serve political agendas in other parts of the world?
I think it happens everywhere. Every country has its national myth rooted in a reading of its history, and such myths are easily exploited, as we saw in the Brexit referendum in Britain, when the nostalgic narrative of our “island empire” fed the emotions of the Leave campaign. But Russia is a special case. History there is more politicized. Once a regime lays its meaning on an episode from Russian history, its historians are forced to toe that line.